‘Championships Are Like Children’: Tim Murphy Wins Coach of the Year

By Griffin Wong, Crimson Staff Writer
By Nicholas T. Jacobsson

Recently-retired Harvard head football coach Tim Murphy has three children. He loves each of them equally.

Similarly, the Crimson’s dramatic, 25-23, triple-overtime victory over UPenn on Nov. 11 of last year — when sophomore quarterback Jaden Craig caught a double reverse in the end zone — sealed Murphy’s tenth and final Ivy League title as the Crimson’s head coach. But despite the storybook ending to his career and the fact that it was Harvard’s first conference crown in eight years, Murphy refused to call the final triumph his favorite.

“Championships are like children,” he said with a chuckle. “You have to love them all the same.”

Still, just like children, while championships may all be loved the same, they are unique and special in their own right.

The 2023 Crimson team was no exception. The roster was led by a crop of newcomers, as quarterbacks Luke Emge ’22 and Charlie Dean ’23 — who split most of the first-team reps in 2021 and 2022 — both graduated, forcing junior Charles Deprima, who had never previously attempted a pass in college, into the starting role. Junior running back Shane McLaughlin — despite breaking out with two scores in a 41-25 victory over Howard on Oct. 16, 2022 — was relatively unknown after Aaron Shampklin ’21 and Aidan Borguet ’23 delivered sustained brilliance over the previous three seasons. Kym Wimberly ’22, the leading receiver on the 2021 and 2022 teams, also left, transferring to Delaware for his fifth year of eligibility.

Ivy League football analysts were skeptical. In the conference’s annual poll of 16 media members, Harvard was projected to finish fourth, garnering just one first-place vote and lagging behind Yale, Princeton, and UPenn. Media members accurately assessed the former’s talent, but underestimated Dartmouth and Harvard, as the Bulldogs and the Big Green ultimately shared the title with the Crimson in the fifth three-way split of the Ancient Eight crown since conference play began in 1956.

It didn’t take long for Murphy’s Crimson to prove how overlooked it was. In particular, Murphy highlighted a 38-28 victory at No. 6 Holy Cross on Sept. 30, 2023 as the moment when he realized he had a championship-caliber team on his hands.

The Crusaders had made it all the way to the FCS national quarterfinals the season prior before falling to South Dakota State on the road, and they returned a strong team in 2023. They were 2-1 going into the evening matchup at Worcester’s Polar Park.

At that point, Harvard stood at 2-0 after a convincing home win over St. Thomas and a nail-biting shootout victory over Brown, 34-31. Deprima had gotten off to a hot start to the season, notching a pair of 100-yard rushing games. But the Bears finished just 5-5 and the Tommies were still finding their stride; Holy Cross would be a different caliber of opponent.

“If we don’t beat Holy Cross, they go to the playoffs again,” he said. “That was a big win. They’ve done a great job with their program. It’s obviously a scholarship program, and I felt the way our guys stepped up across the board — offense, defense, special teams, coaches did a great job coaching our kids up — that was a terrific win.”

Beating the Crusaders put the Crimson on the map, as it vaulted from No. 24 to No. 19/21 in the FCS rankings. From there, Harvard continued to roll, recording comfortable wins over both Cornell and Howard. It was reminiscent of the 2021 season, when the Crimson won each of its first five games before losing in controversial, heartbreaking fashion at Princeton and following it up with a tight defeat to Dartmouth, ultimately falling one game short of the conference championship.

For the Crimson, lightning appeared to strike twice, and painfully so. The Tigers snapped Harvard’s winning streak on Oct. 21 and sent the visitors back to Cambridge reeling after the vaunted rushing attack put up a poor performance in a 21-14 loss.

But, thanks partially to Murphy, its fortunes soon reversed.

After Deprima struggled in the first quarter of a 17-9 victory over Dartmouth, throwing an interception on the opening drive, the Head Coach ran a mid-game quarterback competition between his incumbent starter and Craig, inserting the relatively untested signal-caller into the lineup the following drive. Craig decisively won the battle, notching 36 rushing yards and two scores in a gritty effort that staved off the déjà vu from 2021.

Putting in an unproven sophomore during one of the biggest games of the season wasn’t a decision that was popular among the coaching staff.

In three decades on the sidelines, Murphy captured ten Ivy Leagues titles, the most of any coach in conference history.
In three decades on the sidelines, Murphy captured ten Ivy Leagues titles, the most of any coach in conference history. By Nicholas T. Jacobsson

“Having to make the change in-game to change quarterbacks [was] something that was not necessarily everything the staff wanted,” he explained. “It was a head coach decision. I’m not sure that our coaches felt comfortable with it, but that’s what we’re paid to do. That’s an experience thing.”

Ultimately, it proved to be the right one. Craig — who served as the fourth-string quarterback just one season earlier — led Harvard to consecutive victories over Columbia and the Quakers, throwing for more than 250 yards, completing over 60 percent of his passes, and recording both passing and rushing touchdowns in each one. Murphy raved about the leadership capabilities of both Craig and Deprima, who took his benching in stride.

“When you’ve got a great kid at quarterback that suddenly is not the quarterback, and him still being able to lead the team and him still being able to go out there and compete every day, that’s not a given at that position,” Murphy said of Deprima.

“I thought both our quarterbacks did a great job of being leaders, being respectful to the decisions that I made, and making the best of the opportunities,” he added.

Murphy’s personnel decisions, the leadership of Deprima, Craig, and captain Nate Leskovec, and the tenacity of every player on the roster meant that, despite being forced to start multiple sophomores in the secondary during the clinching win against UPenn, the Crimson earned its rings with a week to spare. The 23-18 loss to Yale in the season finale did little to diminish the luster of Murphy’s final season.

“Our team went out and got it done. It was never easy,” he said. “To go out on your career in your 30th year with a championship that made it the tenth championship for our team during that era, I couldn’t really have asked for more.”

As he has typically done throughout his career, Murphy deflected most of the praise for Harvard’s brilliant 2023 season to his players and staff. In particular, he credited defensive coordinator Scott Larkee ’99 and defensive backs coach Ryan Crawford for helping to keep an inexperienced unit steady. Under Larkee and Crawford’s tutelage, the Crimson ultimately finished ninth nationally in Team Passing Efficiency Defense, a composite stat that takes several variables into account. It also registered more interceptions (13) than touchdowns allowed (12).

“It takes a village, and we certainly had a great village,” Murphy said. “[I’m] really pleased with how our staff and our kids evolved through the season.”

Ultimately, the 2023 season bolstered Murphy’s already-strong case as the greatest football coach in Ivy League history. He finished with 200 total victories for Harvard, 141 of which came in intra-conference competitions — both marking the most of any Head Coach. Only UPenn matched the Crimson’s 10 Ivy League titles over his 30 campaigns. His final season was also Harvard’s 21st campaign with a .500 record or better since the turn of the century; the only year in which it failed to do so was 2019.

“I’m very grateful for the recognition,” Murphy said, when presented with the GOAT label. “I never woke up everyday thinking I was the best at anything. I was the first and only one in my family to go to college. I was surrounding myself with great friends who were pretty humble people. I think that we put together the greatest teams to allow ourselves to have that record. I don’t think it was because of me.”

—Staff writer Griffin Wong can be reached at griffin.wong@thecrimson.com

Year in SportsCommencement 2024